Guest Author - Jane Winkler
Without a standard monetary system, trading for goods and services was the basis of the American Indian economy. This method of commerce continues at gatherings and Pow-Wows between individuals and with Trading Blanket events. While there are regional variations to rules and protocol, the basics are consistent.
A moderator, the Blanket Master, places a large blanket on the ground. Those with items to trade gather in a circle. The items can be used or newly made, traditional or contemporary. Items from sacred, protected places are not allowed, as well as items from endangered or protected animals.
A Trading Blanket generally begins with a piece of cast iron. However, this has varied throughout time and region. We haven't always had cast iron in the Americas, and extensive trade routes were well established before European contact. This one began with a cooking pot placed in the center of the blanket. Those who wanted to trade for the cooking pot placed their item(s) on the blanket as their offer. More than one offer can be made. One must be careful not to step on the blanket. For some, this is a minor error. But for others, it is more serious and considered as offering oneself for trade.
The owner of the original item(s) placed on the blanket has these options:
1. Accept one of the offers
2. Ask one or all traders to “sweeten the pot” by adding more items to their initial offer
3. Refuse all offers and withdraw the item from trade
Hard feelings are not permitted around a Trading Blanket. All participants must respect the trader's choice, whether a trade is made or not.
Side Trades are permitted. When requested, those involved step away from the circle and inform the group of the outcome. Monetary transactions are not permitted on the blanket. We were instructed to say "Frogskins" if interested in purchasing an item. This would also be conducted away from the circle. There is one exception practiced widely throughout the Americas. When trading a sharp object, such as a knife or axe, coins are exchanged after the trade to ensure the blade doesn't "cut" the friendship.
There are also "Medicine Trades." These occur when an item placed on the blanket for trade is especially desired or needed. Medicine Trades can be obvious or discreet, and monetary or equal value is completely irrelevant. If the "pot" needs to be sweetened, other traders can assist, giving their own items to add to an offer and help make a successful trade.
A Trading Blanket is a shared experience, in no way comparable to shopping, or attending an auction. It's a social event, a chance to renew friendships, make new friends and help your community. Time is allowed for everyone to make their best offer. If a trader needs to retrieve additional items, the Blanket Master states "Trader Running." All activity is paused and this provides the perfect break for story telling.
This Trading Blanket is held after dancing on Friday night of Pow-Wow weekend. Many arrived with boxes and bundles. Along with the term "Trader Running," there was also "Trader Digging," for those searching their boxes and bundles in the dark. Flash lights are recommended at late night Trading Blankets.